If waking up to find your old tweets dredged up and splashed on the front page of a Sunday newspaper wasn’t enough of a rude awakening for Paris Brown, the ordeal had only just begun. The teenager dutifully appointed as Britain’s first Youth Police and Crime Commissioner was hauled in front of TV cameras to explain references made as young as 14 in which she condoned drug use and referred to “pikeys” and “fags”. By this afternoon she had resigned.
Explaining her reason for writing the tweets, she originally said: “It’s an age thing. Older generations haven’t grown up with Twitter and social media. For young people it’s different. You don’t want to bother people with your problems. You just think, I’m annoyed, Tweet!”
It was, in fact, a shrewd observation. And in recent days the teenager has become the poster girl of a generation that is growing up in uncharted digital waters where past transgressions are resurfacing to people later in life. Kent PCC Ann Barnes said that her apprentice, who was selected from more than 160 candidates has been forced to “grow up” and “learn very quickly”.
She is not the only one. Labour frontbencher Chuka Umunna, 34, was recently forced into an apology after past online musings caught up with him. Messages written under a pseudonym described London’s West End as “full of trash and class-C wannabes”. It might have been an honest impression of London nightlife five years ago; but it wasn’t a turn of phrase a young MP with ambitions of higher office would want to be readily associated with now. As if that wasn’t enough, it was later alleged that Mr Umunna or a member of his staff tinkered with his own Wikipedia entry to allegedly compare his political prowess to Barack Obama.
Experts warn that, for the generation behind Mr Umunna, there are more dangerous risks ahead.
“We’re about to have our attitudes truly tested,” warns Katy Howell of social media agency Immediate Future. “If you think the odd racist tweet is bad, wait until the 14-year-olds that are compromising themselves on Tumblr become famous or assume boardroom positions in 15 years from now. There’ll be far more uncomfortable revelations and careers, and even people’s lives, risk being derailed.”
It comes amid much fear over the way social media is used. “Even before they make it into high-profile positions people need to start consciously deciding why and how they plan to use a social network,” says Prashant Yadave, of the agency Karmarama.
The EU is currently moving to legislate for data to be eradicated from companies in what is billed as “the right to be forgotten”. Britain has hitherto opposed the moves, with the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling believing it to create legal difficulties due to the virtual impossibility of fully removing all data from the internet.
Businesses, too, fear it could wreck what is now one of their most effective way to reach customers, with digital adspend worth more than £6.5bn last year according to figures out today. Social media is the latest marketing weapon, with spending in the past three years increasing almost four-fold to £328m.
But would any of this legislation have helped Paris Brown? Unlikely, says Jim Killock, head of the Open Rights Group, which campaigns for privacy and consumer rights online. “It may be that she could have asked for the account to be deleted in full but it wouldn’t remove the historic record of what she said, which might well remain in other caches on other sites or in other places.”
Which gets to the nub of the issue: even with the greatest diligence, there is no guarantee that your internet track history can be entirely erased. In which case, should the Kent Police Commissioner have made the hiring at all? PCC Barnes told The Independent that there was no vetting of Ms Brown’s social media background. “She was subject to national vetting procedures but these do not currently include social media. But neither would it for any party elected official. This could, in that sense, be a landmark case.”
Mr Killock adds: “If someone says something in public, people need to know it comes with certain responsibilities. If you don’t have the opportunity to delete the data, that is in the hands of a third party and it is this that takes us into a potentially dangerous and unpredictable new world.”
Blue State Digital is the social media agency behind Barack Obama’s two successful election campaigns. With thousands of volunteers – aides and party members working on behalf of the President – the agency adopted various levels of vetting of members that started on blind trust and continued the closer one came to Mr Obama.
Rob Blackie, the agency’s European managing director, said it reprimanded the few people who breached the code, and in some cases, dismissed them. He adds: “We used to have a society that clearly defined public and private domain. No longer – social media and real life is overlapping and I think ultimately the world will move in a more mature direction to accommodate for the differences.”
For now though, Mr Blackie says the safest way is to assume everything you write is public and likely to return to haunt you just as it has for a growing catalogue of victims. “As egocentric as it may seen now, there is nothing to stop anyone falling out with you and then leaking all your information to a newspaper should ever become even mildly famous.”
Online defence: Sites to clean up your profile
The tool allows you to view all social media timelines simultaneously and in chronological order. This helps to keep tabs on your wider digital footprint and act accordingly. (socialsafe.net)
Scans your Facebook and Twitter profile; pinpointing suspect words that might reflect badly on the world. Also untags you from potentially incriminating photographs. (simplewa.sh)
Displays all third parties to which you have granted third-party access to your Facebook or Twitter accounts. Makes it easier to view permissions and modify accordingly. (mypermissions.org)
Deletes 350 Tweets an hour sorted by keyword or hashtag. Far faster than deleting each Tweet manually. (tweeteraser.com)
Shows your precise “digital footprint” in terms of where your entries are linking; how you’re “perceived” online and the company you hold. (qnary.com)